This Day in History: The Battle of Brandywine
On this day in 1777, George Washington’s army loses the Battle of Brandywine, but the soldiers left the defeat in good spirits. They’d put up a gallant fight! Washington wrote John Hancock that despite “the misfortune of the day, I am happy to find the troops in good spirits; and I hope another time we shall compensate for the losses now sustained.”
General William Howe was then traveling toward Philadelphia. He had just clashed with Americans at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge. It was a battle that left those Americans retreating back toward Washington’s main army.
The two sides prepared for the larger conflict that seemed certain to come.
Washington decided to make a stand at Brandywine Creek, a natural defense to the west of Philadelphia. The creek was swift-moving and difficult to cross, but there were a few known fords across the water. Washington stationed the bulk of his forces at one of these: Chadds Ford. He also sent forces under Major General John Sullivan and Major General John Armstrong to cover the fords to the north and south.
Unfortunately, Howe knew something that Washington did not.
Washington had been told that there were no fords within 12 miles of Sullivan’s outermost forces, but Howe knew of another ford on the northern side of the river. Howe decided to break up his forces. General Wilhelm von Knyphausen would lead 6,800 men at Chadds Ford. In the meantime, Howe would take his 8,200 men across the northern ford.
This was harder than it sounds! The Brandywine has a fork in it, so Howe’s men would actually end up crossing in two places, just to get to the other side. They would then come back south and surprise the Continental Army on its right flank.
The two sides clashed on the morning of September 11.
Knyphausen was to work his way towards Chadds Ford in the morning, but it was only a diversion. The real attack would come later, from the forces that Howe was leading across the northern ford. Americans met and held off Knyphausen’s men for a time, but they were eventually forced to fall back. Meanwhile, Washington was trying to assess whether Knyphausen’s attack was the main thrust of the British’s movements or if more was to come from another direction. He was receiving conflicting reports. One scout reported that he had “heard nothing of the Enemy about the Forks of the Brandywine & is Confident they are not in that Quarter,” but another reported that “5000, with 16 or 18 field pieces” had been sighted.
The uncertainty was removed when Sullivan’s forces were attacked at about 4 p.m. Americans fought hard. Sullivan later wrote that the “fire was Close & heavy for a Long time & Soon became General . . . five times did the Enemy drive our Troops from [Birmingham] Hill & as often was it Regained & the Summit often Disputed almost muzzle to muzzle.”
The British eventually obtained control of the hill. Americans retreated, but they did so in a surprisingly orderly fashion. They managed to regroup in Chester, Pennsylvania. The British, too, were exhausted and stopped to attend to their wounded, rather than keep up a pursuit of the American forces.
The battle was a loss. American casualties were numerous. And yet Americans had made a legitimate stand against a large and professional British army.
“Editorial Note,” Founders Online, National Archives (reprinted from the Papers of George Washington).
From Lieutenant Colonel James Ross to George Washington (Sept. 11, 1777)
Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (Sept. 11, 1777)
Letter from Major General John Sullivan to George Washington (Sept. 11, 1777)
Paul R. Misencik, The Original American Spies: Seven Covert Agents of the Revolutionary War (2013)
Stephen R. Taaffe, The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778 (2003)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)